Brooks Rexroat’s debut short story collection, Thrift Store Coats explores the harsh and often unforgiving landscape of the Midwestern United States. Across these twelve stories, his work examines the way that place changes people, how it shapes them, and what that means for their day-to-day lives. These narratives are rooted in deeply personal moments, often quiet and understated. The characters that find themselves in these Midwestern territories are not literary characters. They are honest depictions of the people who live there.
I received this book as a gift from the publisher, having a vague understanding of what I was getting into before I opened the book. But still, something stood out to me, so much so that it led me to question what I remembered of the synopsis. Reading the table of contents, I encountered a series of foreboding titles like “destroying new boston” and “waiting out the apocalypse.” The first story itself is titled, “blood off rusted steel.” Given these titles, I expected tales from the wasteland or visceral genre work (like that of Cormac McCarthy), rather than the honest and grounded realism that followed.
The table of contents shaped my perception of the collection before I even began reading it. And this is the aspect of Thrift Store Coats that I want to talk about, not because the collection itself is not engaging and worthwhile (it really is), but because this introduction had such a profound effect on how I read the rest of the book. I want to talk about the way that literature introduces itself to us.
In the case of Thrift Store Coats, we enter through the various routes: a list of blurbs, copyright, title page, table of contents. And without an introduction or foreword, we lack the preliminary reading often found in some larger or more process-driven releases. The table of content is thus a substitute for the introduction—phrase long encapsulations of what is to come. Here is where that aforementioned moment occurs. Skimming the table of contents we see the various titles, most written with language evocative of the post-apocalyptic genre. Hinting at destruction, quiet spaces, and distant violence. Something like, “blood off rusted steel” creating a blown out image of a knife or a gun barrel. We are immediately met with a set of expectations. We take in these titles and our brain attempts to piece the narrative together before we’ve even begun. We assume we understand the possible directions that this work will go, the plots to be played out, what kind of world this is. In other words, we form the fantasy screen before witnessing the fantasy itself. We can classify this as a false diegesis—a misleading representation of the imagined world of the narrative(s).
Thrift Store Coats is not unique in its use of the table of contents. In fact, this is something that most books do regardless of intention. But, where Thrift Store Coats becomes unique is in the way that it uses this expectation in a cleverly deceitful manner. This false diegesis is not just a trick, it’s not without purpose. It creates a frame for the stories, it evokes a tone and atmosphere which the reader carries with them from the moment they open the collection to the moment they close it. Rexroat operates in an admirably quiet and nuanced space, where expectations can be approached and manipulated on a near invisible level. Like the etiquette of a bourgeois dinner party, Thrift Store Coats’ mannerisms are discreet and certain. The writing is robust and lean. Its linguistic manipulation of the reader’s expectations occurs on a level that is barely noticeable.
Although Rexroat’s collection never reaches this post-apocalyptic setting, the stories often feel melancholic and empty. As if the world has lost half of its population and social interactions have become increasingly rare, and resources scarce. There is weight behind every moment. Landscapes are dilapidated and unstable, like in “destroying new boston” where an abandoned mill takes center stage, and its inevitable destruction greatly influences the arc of the narrative. The settings of these stories feel as if they’ve weathered an apocalypse. As if everyone has suffered the emotional fatigue of a cataclysmic event, and as if the architecture has had to endure just the same. The Midwest and the Rust Belt become a new kind of hinterlands. A contemporary post-apocalyptia. But what is their cataclysm? What’s brought them into this dilapidated state? The answers feel antithetical to the question. There was no cataclysm. No one brought them here, the problem is that they’ve stayed. These settings are not new, they are inherited, handed down from generation to generation until we arrive at the present, and what remains is aging and long neglected.
Without that moment of heightened violence—the cataclysm—the destruction of Rexroat’s environments is slow and quiet. They are abandoned before the peak. But not by everybody. The remainders continue on, living in the places which have defined them, which they’ve known their whole lives. Often, it feels like the weight of these personal moments is unbearable. In “waiting out the apocalypse” when a man is asked to evacuate his home, it truly does feel like the world is ending. The impending doom of an oncoming flood haunts the town of Cairo, Illinois. The man’s stubbornness feels righteous and almost sacrificial. He can’t help but remain with this monument to his identity. The house becomes this interesting kind of personal idol. As if this house is the only structure remaining upright. As if every other building has toppled over and every piece of sheet metal has rotted away. As if another flood has already destroyed what used to be. As if there is nothing else left. Here, we see the versatility of Rexroat’s collection. Not only has the Rust Belt suffered from this degradation, but in the case of “waiting out the apocalypse,” it has seemingly perpetuated its own deterioration. The environment is ruthless and uncaring. At times fertile, but rife with harmful possibilities. People inhabit these places in spite of the land, not in cooperation at it.
Thrift Store Coats is one of the rare acts of nuanced subversion. These themes are not flaunted in front of the readers face. They are expertly woven into the various narratives. And the table of contents is not necessarily the cause for all of this, more it is the seamless introduction to the understated tone and atmosphere of the collection. A quickly shattered diegesis from which the reader must learn to recover, and march on. It adds a dimension to the stories that might otherwise be hard to detect. To see work that so expertly weaves in these mimetic qualities is exciting and refreshing. If you haven’t read Thrift Store Coats — or if you already have and didn’t originally notice these connections — I encourage you to read this debut collection from Rexroat.